Five weeks and one day from the start of free agency, the Washington Capitals have plenty pressing contractual matters on the docket for June, chief among them the statuses of four restricted free agents. Speaking recently, General Manager Brian MacLellan categorized re-signing Braden Holtby, Evgeny Kuznetsov, Marcus Johansson and Nate Schmidt as top priorities.
“I think we can get reasonable contracts on all of them, and then we’ll make decisions based on where the cap ends up and what amount of money we have left over after that, and how we want to invest it,” MacLellan said.
If the Capitals decide to spend some of their remaining cash to re-sign Joel Ward, who will otherwise enter unrestricted free agency for the third time in his career, the versatile forward would welcome returning with open arms. According to his agent, speaking via telephone Tuesday, the proverbial puck sits in Washington’s end.
“Washington is his first choice over going to unrestricted free agency,” Peter Cooney said. “We would like to re-sign with Washington and come back. Our door is open for the Capitals, absolutely first and foremost.”
Coming off a starring postseason role in which he tied for the team lead with nine points, facing the end of a four-year deal annually worth $3 million, Ward figures to receive a raise, regardless of his destination. At 34 years old, this could be Ward’s last deal structured longer than two years, and MacLellan already predicted that term length would “be an issue,” provided Ward for asks for a three- or four-year contract, which seems all but certain.
With forwards Jay Beagle and Eric Fehr also entering unrestricted free agency, the Capitals likely won’t bring back both of them and Ward, while still satisfying MacLellan’s stated offseason desire to acquire a top-six winger. If the salary cap ceiling increases to above $70 million, as MacLellan recalled Commissioner Gary Bettman telling the NHL’s general managers it would, then Washington will have somewhere north of $20 million to spend on eight roster spots, half of which should be filled by the four restricted free agents.
This would theoretically leave little room to squeeze in Ward, who could command north of $4 million on the open market from a team seeking to add the immovable puck-battler, two-way special-teamer and strong goalmouth scorer. But Cooney said that if the Capitals meet Ward’s desired term and salary, they would jump at the chance to re-up before July 1. And even if free agency began without a deal in place, Cooney felt that wouldn’t rule out returning, citing when Ward signed a two-year deal with Nashville on July 1, 2009.
“We’re not committed to going to unrestricted free agency,” he said. “[But] if we did go to July 1, it means nothing. Washington is still a player. That does not shut the door on Washington.”
Speaking two weekends ago at the Capitals’ practice facility in Arlington, quite possibly his last time there as a member of the organization, Ward was asked if he wanted more control over the contract process. Particularly this summer, in a thin market for free-agent wingers, plenty of suitors could come knocking when the window to meet with potential new club begins in late-June.
“You can’t have the best of everything in sports, right?” he said. “I guess that’s one of the things that you’re left unsure of and you can’t control. Sure, you’d like to wish you could control everything, yeah, but obviously you can’t get the best of everything.”
If he and the Capitals can meet on his term and salary, though, Ward may get just that.
“If we can work in a good number and we feel Joel can continue to play at the level he’s playing at, we’ll work it out,” MacLellan said.
“I think it’s doable if they want Joel,” Cooney said. ““It’s a team that has a chance to win it all. Washington’s a hell of a fit for Joel.”